Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why we need a temple community

Kedoshim-New Member Shabbat
We are living in an age where the biblical verse “Love your Neighbor as yourself “is put to the test. We read about so much that divides us. We read about the politics and the economics that have challenged our faith in the elected leadership. We ourselves read newspaper accounts of incidents inside our own community such as teachers in the public schools hurling anti-Semitic slurs and manhandling students. There are other abuses of human dignity that happen in our region. And I hope it makes us feel just a bit more secure knowing that we have a Jewish Community at Congregation Beth Yam which will watch out and speak out for all of us at times when we feel deeply concerned about an issue in the community.
The Torah portion for this week is Kedoshim and it reminds us to imitate God in the way we live. For the most sacred kinds of values and behaviors are those that God has taught us to model these sacred values and behaviors.  Congregation Beth Yam is an institution that is supposed to represent those values of human dignity to each other and to the entire community. But when we see that others do not practice them then we must reflect carefully before we as a community respond. For those of us who are joining this congregation I say this because the reported incident in the newspaper this week of the Bluffton Middle school teacher has taught us a lesson about why we need to value and respect the purpose of having a temple in the low country. It is not always about the particular worship pattern we present or the adult education courses or the youth programs. They are all important. But tonight we ask why do we need a Jewish community for our relationships with the outside world? To answer this question is to answer another question. “Why am I joining a congregation and what am I investing in when I support this congregation?
We read in the Parasha “You shall not oppress your neighbor.” You shall not rob them. You shall render judgment fairly.  Do not gossip and do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” All these verses are telling us that God has high expectations from us. And what unifies all these verses is the moral imperative to use individual restraint to keep our emotions in line. It is not just telling us what to do but how to feel emotionally towards our neighbors. Sometimes that could be our loved ones and other times those in the community we live in.
The Parasha continues to guide us about restraining our inner emotions. The Torah reminds us to treat senior adults with respect. And there is a great deal here about not harassing the strangers. We read about sexual immorality on all levels regarding prohibited behaviors within families. Again the point is to not indulge heated emotions nor our physical desires too. The Torah tells us about setting boundaries on all levels of human interaction.
God is telling us that God wants us to be different and that is why we have these laws. “For you shall be holy to Me, for  I, the Eternal One, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine” (20:26).
We feel different and separate because we are Jews. I think that is part of the privilege of being Jewish. We have a different kind of mandate to observe laws and traditions that God handed down to our ancestors who transmitted them to us. Being identified as different, however, is a not so easy to cope with especially in our community. We imagine that when we retire to Hilton Head and Bluffton we don’t have to deal with so-called “Jewish issues.” The truth is that we do have a responsibility if we have any sense of honor or dignity about who we are as a Jewish community to educate others about us and there are times when advocacy is also important. The case of the school teacher has opened up questions not only about how the school system handles the Holocaust and Jewish students and faculty but also about the culture of the schools in how well they embrace religious diversity and how responsive they are to the Jewish community. Remember we have probably over 30 kids in our temple in the public schools and congregants who teach in these schools as well.
I am sure that protecting Jewish kids and faculty in our school system is not the reason for joining our congregation. But the idea that joining our community strengthens us and those who need our support has been part and parcel of the Jewish community mission in America. That mission does not change even when we retire.
Our faith tradition is concerned about life and there is no such thing as retirement from the world. Age itself does not exempt us from not acting or caring about injustice or building bridges for mutual understanding. And that is what we want to do with the school system and that is why we need our congregation to be knowledgeable about what happens in our community.
I am glad we have such a vibrant group of new members joining us this year. The leadership of Penne Meiselman and Mike Weingarten and their committee deserve our appreciation. We are striving for the kind of community that broadens the reach of this congregation into the community at large to do good work even if the issues are delicate and, at times, controversial. We will work hard with the leadership and engage us to make a difference in the low country. I personally want to thank all the new members for making this choice and strengthening our standing in the community. Your volunteerism in the broader community enhances the reputation and credibility Congregation Beth Yam. 
It is possible that we didn’t realize it when we joined this congregation but we invested something of our souls in standing united with a Jewish community. We invested our commitment to protecting the values that Torah teaches us for our children and teens and their parents as well as for all the age groups. They stand upon our shoulders and we must be strong for them and for the future so that anyone moving here will know that Congregation Beth Yam is a beacon of light and the central address for the Jewish community. That is the sacred mission of our community to imitate God’s will to fashion a healthy involved and secure Jewish community.
Shabbat Shalom